I’m going to begin this story by letting you know up front what’s usually reserved for the end: the important takeaway that could someday save your life and maybe the lives of others. It’s simply that if there’s an anomaly you don’t fully understand and can’t seem to correct, don’t hesitate to land at the nearest suitable airport and then try to find the solution to the problem. I’ve long considered that principle to be a building block in the foundation of a safe flight. The National Transportation Safety Board certainly agreed, at least with respect to the flight of a General Dynamics Convair 340, a ’40s-era airliner that had been converted into a cargo hauler, designated the C-131B, which was operating that day as a charter flight, Conquest Air 504.
While on a return flight from Nassau to Miami on the day of the accident, Feb. 8, 2019, the aircraft lost power in both engines, and the captain was forced to ditch the big twin in the Atlantic Ocean. The captain was fatally injured, but the first officer survived and provided some chilling details of what happened.
Conquest Air is a cargo airline with offices in Miami Lakes, Florida, and Nassau, in the Bahamas, that provides daily service between Miami and Nassau and service as needed to Freeport, Abaco and other Caribbean locations. The C131B was manufactured in 1955 and had tricycle landing gear and three seats. Its certificated maximum gross weight was 47,000 pounds. The airplane was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R2800CB3 double-row radial engines rated at 2,400 horsepower apiece. The R2800 series design dates from 1939. Those engines have 18 cylinders, are air-cooled and weigh more than a ton.
At the time of the accident, the airplane had just over 12,701 hours. Its last annual inspection had been signed off on the day before the accident.
The airplane had departed Lynden Pindling International Airport (MYNN) in Nassau at 11:13 a.m. on a return flight to Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport (KOPF) in Miami. An instrument flight plan had been filed, but conditions were VFR. The airplane had flown to MYNN earlier that morning. The accident was at about 12:16 p.m.
The 68-year-old captain held an ATP certificate for single-engine and multi-engine land airplanes and instruments, with type ratings in the Boeing 727, 737, Convair 240, 340 and 440, and LR-JET (Learjet). His first-class FAA medical certificate was current, and the airline reported he had 23,000 hours of total time, with 725 hours in the accident type.
The first officer, 28 years old, had a commercial certificate with airplane single-engine and multi-engine land airplane and instrument ratings. He had a second-in-command type rating for the Convairs. He had a first-class medical certificate and, according to the airline, 650 hours of total time with 305 in type.
The first officer provided a statement to the NTSB and a few days later was interviewed over the phone by an NTSB investigator. He said that when he first got to the airport in Miami on the morning of the accident, the cargo for the outbound flight to Nassau had not yet been loaded, and he sent a text to advise the captain so that he could notify customs that they would be delayed.
The first officer said that he preflighted the airplane and ran the checklist covering the first flight of the day, and everything seemed OK. There were about 900 gallons of fuel on board, with the first officer indicating each engine burned about 100 gallons per hour. He said he met with the airline’s maintenance director, reviewed aircraft logs and other paperwork, signed a release and went back to the aircraft to complete a weight and balance form.
Once the cargo had been fully loaded, the first officer secured the rear of the fuselage, pulled the chocks and assumed his seat. He completed engine checks as called for by the captain and called for the IFR clearance. He said they pulled out of the company ramp to where they could perform a run-up.
The first officer said that with everything looking good, they called for the taxi clearance and proceeded to Runway 9L. After being cleared for takeoff, takeoff power of 53-inches manifold pressure and 2,700 rpm was set. The captain was the flying pilot.
The first officer said that he called the airspeed indicator as coming alive at 40 knots and at 80 knots and acknowledged that the captain had the controls for liftoff. The first officer called out when a positive rate of climb had been obtained, and the gear could be brought up. At 400 feet MSL, the captain called for flaps to be raised and power to be reduced to 48 inches and 2,600 rpm. By about 800 feet, the climb checks had been completed, and the captain called for power to be reduced to 38 inches and 2,400 rpm.
The first officer said that when the airplane had reached its cruise altitude of 7,000 feet, the captain leveled off and called for the cruise checklist. The first officer brought the throttles back to 30 inches manifold pressure and tried to set the the prop for 2,000 rpm. The first officer told the NTSB investigator that when he moved the propeller control switch on the panel, the rpm on the left propeller became stuck at 2,400 rpm. He said that he was able to move the electric toggle switch physically, but there was no movement on the gauge that displayed propeller rpm.
He said that he pulled out the airplane’s Quick Reference Handbook to see if there was any guidance but couldn’t find anything. He said that when he pulled up the aircraft manual on his iPad, he found an entry calling for a reset of the propeller control’s circuit breaker. He pulled the circuit breaker and reset it twice, but it made no difference. He said the captain then set the right engine and prop so they matched the left side.
They continued to Nassau for an uneventful landing. Once on the ground, the captain asked the first officer to send a text message to maintenance at KOPF, but the text did not go through. According to the first officer, the captain told him not to worry about it, and if they couldn’t get the propeller control to reset when they did their runup prior to flying back, they’d just wait there for maintenance.
After unloading at MYNN, both the captain and first officer did walkarounds. According to what the first officer told the NTSB investigator, both engines started fine, and both propellers were cycled. Both of the prop control switches worked, and they observed movement on the rpm gauges. Since the props now seemed to be working, they decided to go ahead with the flight and got their IFR clearance. The first officer was the flying pilot.
Everything was normal until they reached 4,000 feet, and the left propeller again became stuck at 2,400 rpm. The captain reset the circuit breaker, and the prop went to 2,700 rpm and could not be moved from that setting. The captain took control of the airplane and told the first officer to try to reset the circuit breaker. The first officer did it, but there was no effect. The captain reduced power and got the right engine to 30 inches and 2,000 rpm, but the left engine remained at 2,400 rpm. The first officer did not know what the left side manifold pressure was at the time.
The first officer said that at this point, he told the captain that they needed to turn back to Nassau. According to the first officer, the captain said he’d experienced this before, and all they needed to do was keep the power on the left side reduced, and they should cancel their IFR flight plan and go VFR at 4,500 feet.
“We continued the flight with no incident until passing Bimini, where the captain called for a gentle VFR descent to KOPF,” wrote the first officer in his statement. They had left 4,500 feet and started a slow descent, with a target of 1,500 feet.
“All engine instruments indicated normally when all of a sudden the right engine began to surge and lose power,” the first officer wrote. He said that he looked out and saw puffs of white smoke coming from the back of the engine. The light that warns of low fuel pressure came on, and the fuel gauge began to fluctuate. The captain turned on the fuel boost pump, pushed the mixture full forward and worked the throttle, but nothing changed. The engine began to backfire and shake violently with variations in rpm, manifold pressure, BMRP (brake mean effective pressure), fuel flow and fuel pressure. He said that they ran the emergency checklist for engine failure and put the mixture in the cutoff position and feathered the engine.
“Moments later, the left engine began to surge and shake violently, with variations in the BMEP, fuel pressure and fuel flow indications as well as variations in rpm and manifold pressure. At this point, the captain tried to get control of the left engine; meanwhile, I declared an emergency over the radio,” the first officer wrote. As the airplane descended, the captain started maneuvering for a water landing.
The captain was looking outside of the airplane and trying to maneuver to land on the backside of the water’s swells while still flying in a westerly direction toward shore, the first officer told the NTSB’s investigator on the phone.
“I started preparing to ditch,” the first officer wrote in his statement. “I put on my four-point harness, and scooted my seat back. I held onto the yoke with my left hand, then braced with my right hand on the dash. The impact threw me forward, smashing my head and the rest of my body into the yoke, center console, instrument panel and glare shield. I felt the aircraft come to a rocking halt. I pushed myself away from the instrumental panel and realized my seat had broken from the impact. I unbuckled my four-point harness and turned my head to see the captain unconscious slumped over the yoke.”
The impact with the water was severe, and the fuselage split open. The left wing broke off and eventually washed ashore.
The first officer said that got him out of his seat and moved over to the captain, yelling his name while simultaneously shaking his arm and trying to get him to respond.
“By this time, the water was rising above my chest,” the first officer wrote. “I tried to get him out of his seat, but he was too heavy for me to lift. Unable to help him, I proceeded to kick the cockpit door open, as the water level from the cockpit and the fuselage equalized back to chest deep. I immediately noticed the tail of the aircraft was missing.”
The first officer said he located the still-collapsed life raft floating in the water and wrapped his arms around it. He took a deep breath and started swimming toward the opening at the rear where the tail had broken off.
“Once I was free, I inflated the life raft and climbed into the raft, and after locating the survival pouch, I grabbed the flare gun, loaded one cartridge and looked around for nearby boats or aircraft. Above me, I saw a multi-engine propeller aircraft several thousand feet above. I aimed near the aircraft and fired the first round. I emptied the cartridge, reloaded and secured the trigger to prevent an accidental misfire. I then started taking inventory of supplies and securing them to the raft. Several minutes later, I was rescued by the United States Coast Guard.”
The first officer was pulled to safety on board a Coast Guard helicopter that had been flying nearby on a training mission. He was taken to a trauma center in Miami for treatment.
The main wreckage was not recovered from the ocean, about 13 miles from Florida, preventing investigators from trying to find physical evidence of what had gone wrong.
The NTSB quoted Conquest Air as saying the flight crew should have landed as soon as practical after the first sign of a mechanical issue, which the Safety Board said means they should have diverted to the closest airport when the control for the left propeller stopped working. The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was the captain’s decision to continue the flight with a malfunctioning left engine propeller control and the subsequent loss of engine power on both engines for undetermined reasons, which resulted in ditching into the ocean. Contributing to the accident was the first officer’s failure to challenge the captain’s decision to continue with the flight.
All of which brings us back to what I said in the beginning about a takeaway from this accident. Even though the vast majority of us will never fly a Convair C131B, regardless of what we’re flying, if there’s an elusive problem unfolding, don’t hesitate to head for the nearest suitable airport. Or, as a savvy flight instructor once impressed upon me, “It’s much better to be down here wishing you were up there than to be up there wishing you were down here.”